Widener prof creates website about Nat Turner

Widener history professor Sarah Roth has created a digital archive called the Nat Turner Project about the formerly overlooked slave who led a rebellion in 1831.

SLAVE insurrectionist Nat Turner has never really gotten his rightful place in American history.

But then again, he was a strong black leader willing to kill for the cause of freedom.

That's not really the type of image America has ever been comfortable with. Now, strangely enough, it's as if the stars have aligned to finally make up for the historical snub. Suddenly, Nat Turner is a historical figure du jour.

The new biopic, The Birth of a Nation, that opens Oct. 7 tells the story of the bloody slave rebellion Turner led in Virginia in 1831.

Also, a much-buzzed-about item at the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last week, is a small, yellowed Bible that Turner reportedly had with him when he was captured following the uprising.

Closer to home, a history professor at Widener University has created a new digital archive about Turner's life and times called the Nat Turner Project (natturnerproject.org).

The new hub is believed to be a first for this controversial yet historically significant individual.

It includes newspaper articles, court documents, maps, interviews with slaves and slaveholders, as well as other information about Turner's life, and times.

Turner is a fascinating man because he's often viewed as either a a blood-thirsty religious fanatic or a freedom fighter willing to risk all to liberate his fellow slaves.

"In August of 1831, seven enslaved men turned the South and the nation upside down when they engaged in a violent and historic bid to gain their freedom," according to the Nat Turner Project. "As they traveled from farm to farm, they killed every white person they encountered and picked up recruits from among the slave population. Within 24 hours, 55 white men, women and children lay dead.

"By Monday afternoon, whites launched a successful attack against the rebels, capturing or killing most of them that same day . . . Over the next four months, dozens of slaves were put on trial, and more than 20 were executed, including Turner, who was captured after hiding in the area under a pile of wood for more than two months."

Turner was tried, hung and reportedly skinned. His flesh was reportedly made into grease and his bones given away as souvenirs. There also are reports that his skin was turned into purses.

On Wednesday, I visited Widener to meet Sarah N. Roth, who began curating the Nat Turner Project in 2014.

"I have always been interested in Nat Turner since graduate school, partly because I had never heard of him before graduate school, and I was a history major and from the south," explained Roth, 43, who was raised in Louisiana. "You would think at some point, I would have heard of him, but I hadn't."

Roth frequently lectures about Turner - which some students find unsettling.

"They can't get over the fact that children were killed, that white children were killed," Roth pointed out. "A lot of them still think of him as a bad man or a monster even."

It's reassuring to know that instructors like Roth are in the educational trenches pushing back against misperceptions, such as those that garbage TV commentator Bill O'Reilly spouted earlier this year about slaves being well fed and having had decent lodgings.

"[Turner] definitely counters the myth that slaves were docile or accepting of their lot in any way," Roth pointed out. "He is a figure that's left out of the pantheon of revolutionary heroes in the United States and in U.S. history.

"I mean, we talk about George Washington, who was this great military leader who went up against the British against all odds and who used violence to get what he believed in and what he was fighting foright. And yet Nat Turner is a bad man and a monster. How is that possible? He was doing the exact same thing. He just lost."

Roth will take a group of students with her to see The Birth of a Nation next week.

armstrj@phillynews.com

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